Our third day we
met another pair of canoeists—Gus, a young engineer at the Piper aircraft
factory in the downstream city of Lock Haven, and his father. Both are longtime
residents of Lock Haven, and both have spent a lot of time on the river. We got
to talking about how it has changed for the better within our memory. "We
have some bass now at Lock Haven, some trout a few miles below," said Gus,
"but the biggest thing I notice is the swimming. I swam in this river as a
kid, and I guess I'm lucky to be alive, considering what was in it. You could
only stay in 10 or 15 minutes because the acid burned your eyes so bad. Now you
can snorkel or swim for hours without irritation. It is better water than you
get in a lot of motel pools."
The river itself
has contributed mightily to its own cleansing, but it is that complex of
concerns, issues, laws and forced and voluntary actions we call
environmentalism that has given the river a chance to rejuvenate. Twenty years
ago the poisoning of a river did not matter to many and was accepted as an
inevitable consequence of our style of life. Now it is regarded as very bad
business, as both a malicious antisocial act and an unnecessary one.
of the West Branch is by no means complete. Nor, now that it has begun, is the
resurrection assured. If we grow complacent or miserly about environmental
works, the cycle can and will be reversed. However, this is less likely than it
was even 20 years ago. We have accepted the fact that, as a kingfisher is a
barometer of biological conditions in a river, the condition of the river
itself is an indicator of the quality of human life.
About 10 miles
below the Clearfield sewage works, the West Branch commences a mountain passage
through the Allegheny Front. For most of the next 70 miles it is squeezed
between ridges that rise 500 feet or so above the water. The riverbanks are
covered with dense stands of hemlock and rhododendron and above them is a
largely unbroken mixed forest of pine, oak, maple, cherry and birch. In this
stretch there are only two tiny villages, Keating and Karthaus, and only a
dozen or so other permanent dwellings on the river. There are only three
bridges in the canyon area and no dams. There is no other wilderness so
extensive and isolated in the Susquehanna basin, and not many anywhere that
I have been
coming to parts of this canyon for a long time, but these few days in May were
the best ever.
The best water.
There is still too much sulphur in it and not enough life, but it no longer
smells like acid, and, as noted, everywhere there are signs of returning life.
Otherwise the water is superb, classic West Branch clear. Deep enough so that
there is no dragging or hanging up on ledges. Fast enough, with big rapids for
The best weather.
An unbroken series of dry, sunlit days and clear, cool moonlit nights.
The best company.
A daughter on the safe side of the generation gap and adolescent trauma who has
become a companionable young woman.
entertainment. Sport in the white water, swimming in the deep pools, sunning on
flat rocks, cribbage by the fire, and everywhere, always, an immensely varied
display of geological, botanical and zoological wonders.
the mode of travel itself—improvising as the current demands—there is something
wonderfully extemporaneous about canoeing on a wild river. Each day you know
you are going to come across interesting phenomena, but you have no idea what
they may be or how they will be met. There is an urge to get on with it, to see
what the river and canyon have to offer.